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5 education stories in 2018 that signal a growing appetite for change

Systemic education issues in the spotlight this year signaled a growing appetite for change — in how students’ health needs are met in school, in how students are disciplined, in how school safety is addressed, and more.

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A lot of systemic education issues found their way into the media spotlight, signaling a growing appetite for change — in how students’ health needs are met in school, in how students are disciplined, in how school safety is addressed and more.

From start to finish, 2018 has been a year filled with high-profile leadership changes in the education sector. Early on, Minnesota State rebooted its search for a new chancellor — a process that ended in the system’s interim chancellor, Devinder Malhotra, being selected to serve on a more permanent basis. Closing in on the end of the year, the University of Minnesota concluded its own search for its next top leader, naming Joan Gabel its 17th president.

In between these two higher education bookends, the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board, the state board of teaching, appointed a new executive director. Then the state Legislature rushed to fill a vacated U of M Board of Regents seat. Two newcomers were elected to join the Minneapolis Public Schools board.

And on Dec. 20 Gov.-elect Tim Walz named Mary Cathryn Ricker education commissioner and Dennis Olson Jr. commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. 

But this year was about more than a changing of guards. A lot of systemic education issues found their way into the media spotlight, signaling a growing appetite for change — in how students’ health needs are met in school, in how students are disciplined, in how school safety is addressed and more. Along these lines, here’s a recap of five stories that defined this year’s education beat.

1. A deep dive into the school nurse shortage

State officials like to boast about Minnesota’s top-ranking status in areas of health, educational achievement and employment rates. But the state’s inadequate investment in student support professionals — the licensed counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses that schools employ to work on-site — tells a different story.

At 792 students for every school counselor, Minnesota has the nation’s third-highest ratio. And even the counselors students do have access to are often stretched too thin with administrative tasks like scheduling.

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Likewise, the full-time, licensed school nurse to student ratio is about 1:1,700. With just one full-time licensed school nurse for every 4.7 school buildings serving students statewide, this shortage is also severe. Yet it hasn’t garnered the same level of attention from the public and state lawmakers.

This story detailed a day in the life of a rural school nurse who shares one full-time position, rotating among four school buildings each day to complete her rounds. Monitoring diabetic students, managing flu season, assessing injuries and more, her caseload sheds light on the implications of this lesser-known shortage in Minnesota schools.

2. Districts face threat of legal action over discipline disparities

Taking aim at a longstanding issue, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights launched an investigation to identify school districts and charter schools with the greatest disciple disparities in suspensions and expulsions for students with disabilities and students of color.

In February the department went public with its findings, announcing that its list of top offenders included 43 districts and charter schools — all of which had the option to enter into a settlement agreement with the department, or face legal charges. This news story laid out the details of that investigation and why it matters.

To date, 41 of those identified have entered into agreements with the department. The action plans that they’ve submitted include things like professional development training for teachers and staff and implementing Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports systems to take a less punitive approach to behavior issues. The details of all submitted action plans can be found here.

3. Students take the lead on the school safety debate

In the heart of this year’s state legislative session, students from across Minnesota organized marches and school walkouts to draw attention to the recurring issue of school shootings. While their efforts were part of a national student-led movement calling for gun reform, spurred by survivors of a recent school shooting in Florida, local demonstrations outside of the Capitol and school walkouts took on a very grassroots, localized feel.

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Using social media to connect and organize, Minnesota students took center stage in the fight for gun-control legislation — a highly politicized ask that Gov. Mark Dayton chose not to include in his own school safety plan, in the interest of not thwarting related efforts like increased funding for student mental health services and physical safety improvements for school buildings.

This story spotlights the impressive efforts of a few student leaders, as they lobbied state legislators in March to advance gun-control reforms. While their agenda didn’t advance this year, it’s likely that they’ll be back at it again this upcoming session.

4. Diversity boom expands beyond metro area schools

It’s no secret that Minnesota’s student population is becoming more and more diverse. But in analyzing student data in each district for this story, it turns out the footprint of this student diversity boom is quickly expanding beyond metro area districts.

There are now 27 public school districts in Minnesota where students of color comprise the majority of the student body — double the number there was just five years ago. Today, nearly a quarter of students in public school districts in Minnesota are in majority-minority districts.

As more and more districts scramble to respond to the new needs presented by these recent changes in student demographics — with efforts like building up English language learner services, creating a more inclusive school environment, and diversifying their teacher workforce — the appetite among educators and school administrators for resources and best practices has continued to grow. Mounting pressure to tackle the state’s persistent achievement gap is no longer confined to the Twin Cities.

5. Reading instruction debate gets national attention

According to the latest state assessments, only 56 percent of fourth-graders tested proficient in reading. That number has remained relatively stagnant for years. Broken down by race and special status, the proficiency rates are even more alarming.

So when Emily Hanford’s APM Reports audio documentary on the science of reading went viral in the education news world, it generated a great deal of interest among Minnesota educators. Inspired by Hanford’s piece, this localized story explored the state of the reading war in Minnesota, where the debate seems to have shifted.

By and large, educators and professors are no longer debating whether phonics-based instruction — equipping students with the skills needed to decode words — is necessary to teaching literacy. Rather, they continue to be divided over how, and to what extent, phonics instruction should be delivered.